Detecting Breast Cancer Early

Straight Talk About Mammography

Although mammograms are considered among the best breast cancer detection tools, they have limitations. A mammogram may miss some cancers that are present, called a false negative result. Or it may find things that turn out not to be cancer, called a false positive result. In addition, detecting a tumor early doesn’t always guarantee a hopeful outcome, since some fast-growing cancers may already have spread to other parts of the body.

While people often associate breast cancer with finding a lump or mass, the reality is that in its early stages, breast cancer often has no symptoms. By the time you notice changes, such as a mass, the cancer may have already progressed. That’s why most cancer experts recommend that women get regular breast cancer screenings.

Depending on your age and risk factors for developing breast cancer, screening may include frequent self-breast exams, clinical breast exams, mammograms, and breast ultrasounds.

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Mammography

Mammograms are considered the best tool for detecting breast cancer early, before you can see or feel physical changes. Mammograms are essentially low-dose x-rays that allow doctors to look inside your breast tissue.

Screening and Diagnosis

Mammograms are used for both breast cancer screening and diagnosis.

In addition to an early breast lump or mass, mammograms may also be able to detect small deposits of calcium in the breast. While most calcium deposits are not cancerous, in some cases, very tiny specks of calcium — called microcalcifications — may be an early sign of cancer.

There are two basic types of mammography:

Film, or analog, mammography, which has been in use for over 35 years and develops an image directly on a film, is still an effective way for most women to get screened for breast cancer.

Digital mammography converts an image into electronic signals that can be viewed and stored on a computer. Digital mammograms are higher resolution, and the images they produce can be manipulated to make it easier to see abnormalities. For these reasons, digital mammograms may be more effective for screening women with very dense breast tissue. State-of-the-art digital mammography may also be more comfortable and use less radiation than traditional mammography.

Your mammogram schedule

Because mammograms can improve the chances of detecting breast cancer in its early stages, the American Cancer Society currently recommends that:

  • Women in their 40s and older have a mammogram every one to two years.
  • Women of any age who have a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer talk to their health care provider about when to start getting mammograms and how often to have them.

Breast exams

If you’re over 40 or have an elevated risk of developing breast cancer, self-exams are not a substitute for regular mammograms or clinical breast exams.

There are other steps you can take to improve the chances of detecting breast cancer early.

Clinical breast exams- These breast exams are performed by a health professional, such as your gynecologist or primary health care physician.

Breast self-exams- While not a substitute for mammograms or clinical breast exams, regular breast-self exams can help a woman understand how her breasts normally look and feel. When doing a self-exam, it's important to remember that each woman's breasts are different, and that the texture, size, or shape of your breasts may change because of aging, your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause, or taking birth control pills or other hormones. For example, it’s normal for the breasts to feel a little lumpy and uneven, or to be tender and swollen right before or during your menstrual period.

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